Five days to Israel’s poll: Frontrunner Netanyahu is slipping

The man certain to form the next Israeli government after the general election of Feb. 10, Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu, started out with a handy lead of well over 30 Knesset seats (out of 120). But his campaign blunders are eroding this lead to below 30. The deserters are swinging over to Avigdor Lieberman’s right-wing Israel Beitenu which is now polling 20 and still counting.
In a campaign dominated by personalities and security concerns, Netanyahu’s big mistake is his apparent choice of the unpopular Labor leader, Ehud Barak, to carry on as defense minister in the next government. His second is his refusal to name a finance minister for a country worried sick by the slide into serious recession and growing unemployment.
If the voter had wanted Barak, it would have showed its support for Labor, which has slipped to an all-time low of 13. By linking his Likud to Labor, Netanyahu will reach his second term as prime minister from a position of weakness rather than the strength he started out with.
On Dec. 13, 2008, at the outset of the campaign, debkafile analysts advised the Likud leader to hurry up and squash the rumors of his carryover deal with Barak and name a shadow cabinet offering hope of change – or face losing a chunk of Likud faithful.
The defense minister’s policies are widely condemned on at least four counts:
1. The average, middle-of-the road voter is worried about national security and therefore leans to the right – away from Labor. He/she does not buy Barak’s argument that last month’s Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza restored Israel’s deterrence against Hamas and threats from Iran, Syria and the Lebanese Hizballah. Polling-day falls amid high security alerts on two potential warfronts, Gaza in the South and Lebanon in the north. The gap between this fraught situation and claims of restored deterrence equals the credibility gap faced by Barak and the rest of the incumbent government for failing to build on a military success.
2. Notwithstanding a succession of letdowns, Barak’s persists in tying Israel’s security to Cairo’s uncertain good offices instead of letting the military do its job. The average voter complains that the operation in Gaza was cut short because Egypt demanded a unilateral Israel ceasefire to open the door for long-term negotiations with Hamas. Those talks finally crashed this week.
3. Since Hamas declared a truce on Jan. 19, Palestinian missiles and mortars have blasted Israel day by day. A roadside bomb killed an Israeli soldier last Tuesday and, a week later, a long-range Grad rocket exploded in the center of Ashkelon, a major city.
4. IDF reprisals are carefully restricted by Barak to the aerial bombardment of empty buildings and sandy expanses in the Gaza Strip. Barak was voted out as prime minister in 2000 for handling the early days of the Palestinian war of terror initiated by Yasser Arafat in the same way.
On top of this unpopular alliance, Netanyahu is unclear on his future policies as head of government. It took him until this week to come out with an explicit statement on a key security issue, when he said: “Iran will not acquire nuclear arms. Period. We will resort to whatever means it takes to prevent this happening.”
After US president George W. Bush left office without honoring a similarly strong pledge, the Israeli voter regards all such promises as empty electioneering rhetoric, especially if Barak is chosen to execute them.
Netanyahu, furthermore, while promoting his “economic peace” plan the Palestinians, has never come right out and stated his views on Bush’s two-state solution of the conflict.
A present, the duel between Netanyahu and Lieberman dominates the contest for votes.
Israeli Beteinu is rising fast and threatens to overtake foreign minister Tzipi Livni’s Kadima.
The hottest subject of speculation five days before the ballot is the price Israel Beitenu’s leader will exact in terms of portfolios and issues for joining the next government. The further Likud slides by Feb. 10, the higher the price Netanyahu will have to pay.
Another key coalition partner, the ultra-religious Shas has publicly committed to joining a Netanyahu-led government. But although the right-of-center bloc can count on a Knesset majority, the Likud leader will deny the country stable government if he insists on handing out the key defense and finance portfolios to figures outside his party and in the opposite camp for the sake of “a national unity government.”

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